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COVID Q&A: Mental Health During a Global Pandemic

August 5, 2020

You don’t have to test positive to feel stress or anxiety from the coronavirus pandemic. Eric Wood, director of counseling and mental health at TCU, shares tips about staying mentally and emotionally fit during the COVID-19 crisis. The best remedy: connection.

How is the coronavirus global pandemic affecting our mental and emotional health?

EW: In a lot of ways. We define trauma as a physically or emotionally threatening event that lasts more than four weeks and impairs your functioning. A lot of studies are saying most of the world’s population has experienced trauma because of the fear and isolation of COVID-19. And I definitely see that — not just with students but also with faculty and staff. When you look at the definition of trauma, that really seems to apply to most of the world right now.

What are some tools to help us stay mentally fit during the pandemic?

EW: People respond in a lot of ways and may not even realize those are trauma responses. There are three different types of traumatic responses: “Moving against” is when people have a hostile/conflict reaction, and we’re seeing that happen. “Moving away” is avoidance or denial, and we’re also seeing that happen with things like face masks. “Moving toward” is actually moving toward people to get that sense of community. So one way is to be aware of what your stress reactions are. We need to acknowledge that it’s a very stressful time and be intentional about our mental health. This is a time where we need to keep actively coping and doing things that are intentional. Most people don’t have active coping skills.

Also, ask yourself if you’re moving toward people. Do you have that sense of community? Do you have that connection to your peers or family? If you’re not intentionally trying to foster that, it could feel like a very lonely time, and that could actually be a detriment to your mental health.

What are some ways we can develop or improve our active coping skills?

EW: Being intentional about taking care of self is the main thing. There’s research suggesting that just a few minutes a day of self-care makes a significant impact. When people get overwhelmed, they tend to make the mistakes of either stopping things that are helpful, such as exercise, or starting things that are unhelpful, such as substance use. Being mindful to avoid these mistakes and maintain helpful coping skills is key.

What should we do if we start feeling overwhelmed or especially stressed?

EW: I would say the main thing is just to reach out. A lot of times in our society we think we can handle everything and it’s a weakness if we come across something that we can’t handle. This is not the time for that. First of all, acknowledge it. Give yourself permission to feel overwhelmed — emotionally, physically, any area of your life. Second, use your supports. At TCU, we have a great Employee Assistance Program that is available, and it’s great coverage if you need professional help. Or maybe you need to make sure you are intentionally connecting with the support you do have and not acting like everything is OK. When people ask you how you’re doing, be open and honest that you are struggling and try to maximize your social support.

Is there a way to self-assess our mental or emotional health?

EW: The TCU Counseling & Mental Health Center has an online assessment that students and employees can use and it will break it down into depression, anxiety, stress. Most psychological associations have online tools and resources. Those assessments are great, but we know ourselves and have a sense when something’s not right. If you notice any changes in yourself — you’re not thinking the same way, you’re forgetful or you’re just feeling differently — that should set up the mindset that something isn’t right and you need to get help. Most people are intuitive when they just feel “off,” and if they feel off, it’s time to reach out.

What are some things we can do as faculty and staff to support each other?

EW: Again, it’s that community. We want to be a trauma-informed campus. Part of that is promoting awareness that everyone has these huge stressors that can be emotionally and physically threatening and they have lasted longer than four weeks and are still going on. If you’re aware, you can look for emotions underneath someone’s reaction. For example, if I experience some hostility, I can realize that underneath there is a lot of fear and anxiety. Understanding that we’re all going through a lot of things helps us give people patience and grace. The best thing to do is move toward others. The more you feel like you’re part of the community or something bigger than yourself, the more you connect with people and that helps with emotional and mental health. We need to lean on each other to develop that sense of community and understand that we’re all in this together.

How can we support or help students when they return to campus?

EW: Same thing but you’re dealing with students who are traditionally 18 to 22 years old. A lot of times we have to educate and remind them that what they went through in the spring and what’s going on now is highly stressful. We may think they believe COVID-19 doesn’t really apply to them, but when you sit down and talk to them, there is anxiety. There is that worry about a family member or their parent’s job or their lifestyle. That may not come across easily, but when you sit down with them individually, you see that there are a lot of underlying emotions. As staff and faculty, we need to understand that this hit literally every global citizen. Know that when students come to campus, most of them have experienced either physically or emotionally traumatic events in the last six months. Having that awareness should guide our conversations with them, our classrooms and how we structure things. We can’t assume that their personal life is separate from their learning. Whatever affects their personal life is going to affect their learning.

In addition to being aware, I would say know the campus resources available to them — like the TCU Health Center and the Counseling and Mental Health Center. I would say take the time to read our website and learn how to refer a student — 85 percent of our clients come to us because someone told them about us. Knowing those resources is huge. We are right on campus. Students can come to our facility, see a licensed provider and the cost is covered by their tuition. Students don’t always connect the dots, so having faculty and staff able to connect the dots for them is very important.

Are there warning signs we should be watching for when we are interacting with students in class or on campus — things that indicate they may need assistance?

EW: Watch for those “moving against” or “moving away” traumatic responses. If you’re seeing a student who is always creating conflict or having difficulty in relationships — they’re always butting heads with someone — that could be an indication that there’s a lot of traumatic experiences going on. On the flip side, if you see students moving away — they’re not engaging, they’re not going to class, they’re isolating — that could be a natural response to being overwhelmed. I tell faculty and staff members: If you have a close relationship with a student, if there’s anything that gives you alarm — something you see, something you know, something you hear them say — that gives you the right to check in with the student to see if they’re OK. Because you know them so well, if you see something different, please reach out to the student.

What sorts of services are available to students at TCU’s Counseling & Mental Health Center?

EW: We are fully operational. We have both remote/video and in-person counseling services. We’ve configured our bigger offices to make them longer so we are able to do in-person counseling with physical distancing when needed.

We’ve always done group therapy, but last year we started peer support communities. They really weren’t therapy groups, but they were just designed to give students a sense of community. We found that a lot of students wanted to join a peer support community before they tried counseling, and then they said that community met their need. So it really took off. Since COVID-19, we’re up to 16 different support communities right now.

A new service we’re offering this fall is equine therapy. It’s not on campus, but it’s near campus on property by the TCU ranch. It’s outdoors so we can observe physical distancing. Sometimes when people have gone through traumatic things, individual counseling isn’t always going to be the best choice. Equine therapy allows a structured way for them to process that without being under the spotlight of counseling. It’s very well documented to be effective for trauma.

What are some of the silver linings you’ve observed from the pandemic?

EW: One is our remote services. I didn’t realize how much students appreciated that. Many times graduate students who are also TAs were intimidated about coming to the counseling center because they were concerned about seeing their students in the waiting room. Some of our athletes also were worried about being seen in the waiting room, and some students in general see a stigma to counseling and would never walk through our doors. Remote services address that concern because there’s no waiting — we send them a link and they log on. It’s also more flexible and allows us to offer more times. This fall we’re going to offer sessions Monday through Thursday and on Saturday, which we’ve never done before. So now we have a great answer for students who are concerned about being seen in the waiting room. Even after the pandemic, we’re going to keep the remote services.

Our peer support communities also got a boost. A lot of students just wanted to connect.

In addition, we started a virtual letters of care campaign. If a student wants a letter of encouragement from another student, they can go to our website and request a letter. We’ve had so much success with students requesting letters and also write letters. That has taken off, and a lot of other schools are copying it.

The new equine therapy program is another silver lining. That was an out-of-the-box idea. Not many schools have that. We’re already hearing from students that they’re excited about it.

Anything else to add?

EW: In general this is not the time to pretend like you’re invincible. We are talking about a global pandemic and a society with social unrest. There’s also concern about the upcoming election. So there are a lot of external stressors out there, and those things affect our community. This is definitely a time to keep your emotional and mental health as a priority and to have self-awareness because the resources are there. As faculty and staff, we need to take care of ourselves too. It’s going to be a very different kind of semester and it will put a lot of demands on us. How are we taking care of ourselves? You can’t assume that we are invincible either. This is really a time to ask ourselves how we are engaging in self-care and using the supports that are around us.